To Ethiopia, in search of The Ark

Askum, Ethiopia - About 500 miles north of Addis Ababa, in the province of Tigray, is the dusty overgrown village of Aksum. And at the end of its only paved street, inside an arid compound, is St Mary of Zion church, a Byzantine-looking domed edifice built by Emperor Haile Selassie in the 1960s.

A man, seated under sequined claret umbrellas on the steps outside, address-es the multitude. He wears a pale yellow crown and is flanked by priests carrying outsized, ornate gold crosses and dressed in gorgeous robes, in stark contrast to the tattered pilgrims who listen intently in the shade of lilac trees.

“It’s the bishop from Addis,” whispers Haile, the local museum’s archeologist, who also doubles as tour guide. “Today is St Mary Day and you’re lucky to see him.”

I hadn’t come to see him, however – I was here to see what is reputedly housed nearby, in a small, unpretentious granite building. Surrounded by an impenetrable fence, the building has a flaking, green-tiled cupola crowned by a cross and burgundy drapes hanging over the tantalisingly open front door, where white-robed novices hover.

“You don’t really believe it’s there?” I ask Haile sceptically.

“Of course!” he retorts indignantly, convinced, like all Ethiopians, that what is stored in that carefully guarded sanctuary is the Ark of the Covenant, the container for the Tables of the Law, which God allegedly gave to Moses on Mount Sinai.

“No chance of getting in, I suppose?” I inquire, knowing full well that only the guardian inside (an elderly and especially holy monk) is allowed to set eyes on it.

“Not unless you want to burst into flames,” he says, referring to the Old Testament fate of those who approached it too closely.

The Kebra Negast, the national 14th-century epic, confirms Aksum’s claim to the Ark. This maintains not only that the Queen of Sheba was Ethiopian, but also that in 1000BC she visited Israel’s King Solomon. He immediately wanted to make love to the enchanting virginal queen, but assured her he would take nothing from her so long as she took nothing from him.

Nonetheless, after eating his specially prepared spicy banquet, that night she drank a glass of water that the crafty king had placed by her bedside. Solomon demanded his side of the deal and Sheba returned home bearing his child, the future King Menelik.

Still, she had her revenge; 20 years later, Menelik visited his father in Jerusalem, before making off with the Ark and establishing the dynasty that reigned for 3,000 years until Haile Selassie’s overthrow in 1974.

On the other side of the road is Aksum’s remarkable Northern Stelae Field, containing 120 stone obelisks erected in northeast Africa millenniums ago. The stelae were used by local rulers as tombstones-cum-billboards to proclaim their power. Sculpted from a single piece of granite, complete with windows and doors, some resembled mini-skyscrapers.

The 100ft-high Great Stele, which, at 500 tons, is the largest stone block humans have ever attempted to erect, now lies broken on the ground after toppling over.

Haile leads me to the Queen of Sheba’s bath, a 2,000-year-old rock reservoir where naked boys are splashing and women are washing clothes. Beyond are paths that climb a mile to a brown plateau and, overlooking Aksum, King Khalib’s 6th-century ruined palace, with its barely excavated underground vaults and sarcophaguses.

“Va bene?” ragged children shout from nearby thatched huts. “Those are the only Italian words young people know these days,” explains Haile, as we explore the vaults. Then he points proudly to distant rocky pinnacles. “But over there was the battle of Adwa in 1896.” At this battle, Emperor Menelik II inflicted the biggest defeat suffered by a colonial army in Africa on the Italian invaders, saving Ethiopia from the Europeans until the arrival of Mussolini.

Two days after I arrive in Aksum, I hire a driver and decrepit 4WD Toyota and set off to spend the night in remote Debre Damo, Ethiopia’s most famous monastery. The rutted dirt road winds east through dreamy, mist-shrouded valleys to Adwa, a little town at the foot of the peaks, where we buy coffee and honey (the customary gift for the monks).

Thereafter the track zigzags interminably upwards until it passes near Yeha. Ringed by protective mountains, this village was the birthplace of the country’s earliest civilisation, and its ruined Temple of the Moon, with its immense red walls, originally built in the 3rd century, resembles forts straight out of the Yemen.

Then the road crosses parched plateaux dotted with camels until, 40 miles later, a rough track branches off, descending to dried-up riverbeds and climbing steeply to the foot of vertical crags.

“Debre Damo,” says the driver, gesturing vaguely at the azure sky.

Dating back to Aksumite times, the monastery is renowned for its impregnable position on a tiny, 9,000ft-high, flat-topped plateau. Access is only by leather rope, which, after it has been tied round visitors’ waists, is then hauled up a daunting 80ft-rock face by two of the 80 monks.

The 6th-century monastery, forbidden to women, consists of Ethiopia’s oldest church, with an outstanding collection of superbly illustrated manuscripts, and the monks’ humble dwellings, which are almost indistinguishable from a maze of boulder alleys.

I hurry over to the precipitous western rim to catch the sensational scarlet sunset. Not far away, a serious-looking, bearded young man wearing a monk’s black hat is sitting on rocks, chanting prayers. He looks up, startled. “You: where sleeping?” he asks, obviously a mind-reader – the visitors’ quarters are nowhere to be seen – before extending an invitation to stay in his “house”.

From outside, it appears to be just a pile of boulders, but inside it’s surprisingly cavernous, a dark barn with a solitary candle throwing long shadows over earth floor and walls. His English is basic but he’s keen to learn, and soon he’s asking me to correct his exercises from his well-thumbed beginners’ grammar book. We share my spare biscuits and the honey, which he devours ravenously, until he leads the way up rickety steps to a blackened inner sleeping quarter.

Here, by torchlight, he opens a chest and lovingly digs out his prize, and almost sole, possession – a handsome Bible written in Ge’ez, which he begins to read aloud, only stopping occasionally to look up for encouragement. Riveted, I sit, eyes half-closed, on the threadbare mattress. Aeons later, seemingly, he closes the Bible and motions me to go with him outside. There, everything is silent, and the sky’s littered with galaxies, while forlorn plateaux below are bathed in ethereal white by the moon.

At length, we return inside and he bars the creaking door before retiring to his sanctum. Lying on top of the carefully prepared spare “bed”, a wooden table covered with moth-eaten cowhides, I can’t sleep – too moved by this generous monk’s humble spirituality and overwhelmed, yet again, by the grandeur of this tragic land.